I don’t like it when non-believers say things like, “I want to end irrationality.” For one thing, it’s bad marketing. Telling 70% of the population they’re irrational is counter-productive, even if it’s true. (If they really are irrational, why would using reason to convince them of this have any effect?) More importantly, it’s a woefully inadequate generalization that doesn’t even address the primary danger of religious faith or misconceptions of human nature.
“The Irrationality of Humanity”
The problem is that there are “levels” of existence, thought, and actions, and unless we are being very specific in talking about only one, we risk conflations. At it’s very core, we can say (accurately) that our basic human drives are largely irrational. Sure, it makes sense that we want food, water, and shelter to stay alive. But beyond that, it gets a bit fishier.
Reproduction doesn’t make much sense. For women, it’s largely a negative. They literally sacrifice a percentage of their bodily resources to give to a baby that can’t possibly care for itself for years after birth. For men, it’s not much better. Raising humans is very stressful and time consuming. In the end, it’s a big negative when it comes to resources.
Yet nearly all humans want very badly to make children. That is very irrational.
It doesn’t stop there. I’ve written about the irrationality of arms races before. Without knowing why, communists were right — on a purely rational level. Humans and the environment would be better off as a whole if everybody shared a modest number of resources equally.
But it ain’t gonna happen. Our drive to compete, stratify, and “rise above” our fellow humans is much stronger than our ability to reach such broad competitive truces. Our need for self-actualization is too strong for us to accept the status quo. We must have some degree of autonomy, self-determination, and competition to be happy.
Our drive to conspicuous consumption is equally strong. Not only do we want very badly to compete, we also want to keep winning, even when the addition of more resources is superfluous.
The Rationality of Irrationality
But all of these things make sense when viewed through the lens of evolution. They are rational. Evolution is a mindless system of which we are a part. Our minds have been built — mindlessly — to facilitate our participation in the evolutionary process.
When we assign a “goal” to evolution, our behaviors and drives become very rational. That goal is reproduction. Evolution didn’t rationally come to the conclusion that reproduction is a good goal. But because it is a self-selecting system which only propagates that which works, we are here — rationally — because we reproduce effectively. All the “irrational” behaviors and drives we have are very well (though not perfectly) suited to the thriving of the species in an evolutionary sense.
The Many vs. the Few
When we look at the animal kingdom — especially social animals — we notice something disturbing. Evolution doesn’t seem to be designed to promote the happiness of as many individuals as possible. If anything, it seems like in a lot of cases, it’s designed to promote the extreme success of a few top individuals (queen bees or ants, for example) at the expense of large numbers of “unsuccessful” ones.
Furthermore, evolution seems to care a lot more about children than parents. This makes a lot of sense. After all, once the children are made, the parents have lived up to a great deal of their purpose. In the case of species which do not need parental care, it’s not uncommon for the parents to die during or shortly after childbirth.
“Higher Level Irrationality”
These systems are perfectly rational — when you consider the end-goal of reproduction. But we humans have moved a little beyond just reproduction in a lot of ways. We have a highly complex society with art, music, dance, social criticism, science, unprecedented levels of technology, and perhaps most important — individual goals other than reproduction.
And here lies the foundation of our attempt to use rationality to accomplish goals which run contrary to “evolutionary rationality.” We must first accept that our instincts and goals are often not aligned with the rational path to accomplishing our “higher goals.” Once we do that, we can describe our natural drives as “irrational,” but only with respect to the goal we’ve set before ourselves.
Rationality in Faith
Similarly, faith has its own rationality. If we accept as given that it is good to believe some things despite their opposition to reason and evidence, many things become rational. In fact, we can plug pretty much any unproven statement into an argument and proceed with rational logic, and reach a perfectly valid conclusion.
- God’s will is paramount to man’s will.
- God wants every child conceived to be brought to full term.
- Therefore: Regardless of what man thinks or wants, every child conceived ought to be brought to full term.
It’s a perfectly valid argument, and if we accept the first two premises (without evidence, of course) then the third follows rationally. This is what is so compelling and so dangerous about faith. It takes away the burden of proving the givens.
And this is why it’s misleading to call people of faith irrational. They are not irrational for the most part. They’re just failing to apply rationality to one step in the cognitive process. Unfortunately, it’s the most important step, the one which grounds the entire system to reality. But what we nonbelievers must realize is that for the most part, each decision made by people of faith is as rational as if it had been made by a nonbeliever. Each statement follows from the previous one in a very rational manner. People of faith have just made the mistake of improperly justifying the given premises.
That mistake may or may not have been made irrationally. People who have been misled about the evidence for God’s existence may be reaching perfectly rational conclusions. They’re not true, but they’re rational.
The Evolutionary Rationality of Irrationality
When we put the two pieces of the puzzle together — misconceptions about evolution and faith — we see a very coherent and evolutionary rational explanation for the existence of faith. People of faith do some things remarkably well. They form very strongly knit bonds with people of similar faith. They protect and promote their own genetic lines. They use faith to justify their emotional desires. (Remember that emotions are nature’s way of getting us to do things we wouldn’t rationally be compelled to do, like reproduce.)
Viewed from this angle, many of the follies and atrocities of religious faith can be seen as “misfirings” of perfectly rational evolutionary impulses. Faith is a brilliant way to make emotion the driving force in our lives. And emotion is the expression of our evolutionary drives.
The beauty of our big brains is that we’re capable of recognizing all of this and filtering our emotions through more objective reality. We can choose to do those things which are less emotionally appealing but more rational. We can embrace our “irrational” drives to reproduce, consume, and stratify, but only insofar as they don’t cause unjustified harm.
That, I believe, is the path to real human happiness. We realize that many of our emotional goals are not rational when applied to “higher goals.” We accept that we cannot eradicate our emotional goals, and that trying to suppress them completely is a recipe for disaster. However, we use rationality to constrain ourselves when necessary and alter our environment in ways that promote the actualization of more rational goals while still allowing our evolutionary drives to express themselves.
As I hope I’ve demonstrated, faith is probably the worst tool for this task, since it is custom-tailored for giving us rational reasons to follow our emotions, which are irrational when applied to higher goals.